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What's next for digital printing?

Dec 1, 2003 12:00 AM


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While 2004 is a Drupa year, this article is intended as an outlook for digital printing in 2004, not a pre-Drupa review per se. Industry vendors keep a fairly tight wrap on product announcements leading up to the international show, which is my way of disclaiming prior knowledge. Anything I get right is by virtue of observation and/or luck.

Software and workflow

Since there will be few significant hardware announcements, vendors will play up software and workflow in the coming months. In some cases, this will be a smoke screen; in others, it will represent genuine innovation and advancement.

Given that recent releases of PostScript and Acrobat add or extend support for the XML-based JDF, expect to see more creative software products and production equipment supporting the format. We will also see a tighter integration between systems (black-and-white with color digital systems and finishing equipment) and processes (digital and offset), enabling printers to begin moving away from creating discrete files and workflows for each.

Consolidation

The supplier community will continue to consolidate on multiple levels, and some vendors will drop products from their portfolios.

At Drupa 2000, Xerox introduced some direct-imaging (DI) offset equipment (the DocuColor 233 DI and 400 DIs), which it subsequently dropped from its product line (see May 2003 industry news). Xerox is not about to ignore the commercial-printing market — one of its targets for the iGen3 — but it's unlikely any of the major vendors will stray too far from their traditional areas of strength.

Inkjet marches on

Inkjet technology really emerged during the last Drupa, with product showings ranging from the full-color Scitex VersaMark to packaging and proofing equipment. Expect more of the same — but the rate of change and adoption of this technology will rapidly accelerate.

At Xplor 2003, Scitex Digital (Dayton, OH) announced a monochrome inkjet press, which I predict will do well in the market. Customers turning out high volumes of black-and-white transactional documents aren't doing so with big smiles on their faces; truth be known, printers would rather not be doing it at all, in the face of increasing postage rates. They will look long and hard at the price point offered by inkjet.

On the color front, we'll see a big step forward in the output quality of high-speed inkjet. Some new names are expected to pop up in this arena, too.

Color digital copiers and presses

Just as we've seen lower-priced machines fill a niche in the monochrome market — where users are looking for higher throughput but not necessarily higher volume — we will see new lower-priced, full-color copier/printers that begin rivaling the output quality of faster and more expensive equipment. We'll probably also see some faster multiple-engine, web-fed color digital presses, more finishing options and wider formats for some existing equipment.

Vendors that once eagerly touted the explosive growth of color variable-data printing may now realize it will require a lot more effort to move forward. Printers that are already doing variable-data work know how challenging it is, but also appreciate the value and protection the niche affords them. It's probably one area that will be shielded from commodity pricing for a long time to come.

Incremental improvements

Given the recent tough economic climate, don't expect to see many revolutionary products or technologies introduced in the coming year. Digital printer/press vendors will instead focus on incremental improvements, tweaking their current equipment, focusing on market development, partnering with other suppliers, and more effectively targeting specific industries and applications.

Of course, Drupa always features a few things from out of left field, and 2004 probably won't be any different in that regard. The question, then, is which digital-printing products and related technology will last until the next Drupa.

Variable-imaging Must See 'ems

Several variable-imaging (VI) developments were highlighted as Must See 'ems at this year's Graph Expo. According to the selection committee, led by Bill Lamparter, president of PrintCom Consulting (Charlotte, NC), “Both single- and process-color VI printing technology continues to slowly increase their share of the print market. In some cases, VI is creating a demand for new, never-before-printed materials. In others, static content material produced on VI digital presses has displaced offset. Improved and new digital presses are continuously entering the market.” The following products and technologies made the list of not-to-miss exhibits at Graph Expo. These innovations will surely be followed by many more at Drupa 2004.

According to the Must See 'ems panel, “Several manufacturers of digital presses have also developed their products in a Computer-Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) mode, an important facet of operation that makes VI digital printing increasingly competitive with offset lithography.” Xerox's iGen3 was selected as a Must See 'em in both the VI and the CIM category.

  • Xerox's (Rochester, NY) DocuColor iGen3 incorporates inline perfect binding for automated digital production and finishing of full-color, fixed or variable-content perfect-bound manuals, catalogs, advertisements and books. When used with a color controller, bound and finished products, at a resolution of 600 × 600 dpi and with full bleed trim, can be made and ready to ship in a single system. The iGen3 prints up to 6,000 iph.

“Worth-a-Look”: Xerox also offers the easy-vi Customized Fulfillment Solution, featuring iWay by Press-sense. The end-to-end workflow-management application allows users to create, order, print, deliver and bill customized print and on-demand documents. User interfaces allow for submission of data files for variable-information jobs with PDF proofing.

Also available is Xerox's SquareFold bookletmaker, which connects inline to DocuTech Production Publishers to perform saddlestitching, folding, trimming and square-back binding. The device produces the look and feel of a perfect-bound book by squaring the edge of saddlestitched booklets. This system runs at printer-rated speeds and allows titles to be printed across the spine.

“Worth-a-Look”: Individual VI products

  • Heidelberg's (Kennesaw, GA) improved digital front end has increased productivity on its NexPress 2100 digital color press. The NexStation II offers various degrees of implementation to fit the user's needs, giving users the ability to qualify their own substrates, prioritize print jobs, view capabilities prior to print and get production reports.

  • VIPColor Technologies USA's (Newark, CA) VP8020 printer is designed for mid-volume applications, such as forms, labels, tickets, tags, ID cards and direct mail. The VP8020 integrates a Minolta RIP for handling variable content. A cool-fusion system allows printing on pressure-sensitive and synthetic-based substrates. The VI printer can print on roll or fan-folded stock up to 11 inches wide at 25 ppm.

  • Scitex Digital Printing (Dayton, OH) offers the Passport 4300-UV, an under-development black and spot-color inkjet printing system with a 2.58-inch print width. It incorporates piezo drop-on-demand inkjet technology with UV curable ink. The system will be targeted for mailing and packaging applications. Initially the 4300-UV will be integrated into Scitex equipment, but later versions will be available to install on web presses.

  • Océ's (Boca Raton, FL) CPS700 features a patented seven-color technology that uses a toner but distinctly differs from electrophotography. Colors are laid side by side onto one imaging drum, which prevents cracking or peeling that can result from color-layering. The CPS700 produces a high-quality image at 25 ppm.